Swiatek says ‘sky’s the limit’ ahead of French Open semifinal

Poland's Iga Swiatek thumbs up after defeating Jessica Pegula of the US during their quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament in Paris on Wednesday. (AP)
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Updated 02 June 2022
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Swiatek says ‘sky’s the limit’ ahead of French Open semifinal

  • Polish star Swiatek has climbed from world No. 7 to the top of the rankings on the back of a remarkable unbeaten run which has seen her win five successive tournaments, including four WTA 1,000 titles

PARIS: World No. 1 Iga Swiatek said on Wednesday that “the sky is the limit” as she looks to extend her 33-match winning streak and reach the French Open final.

The 2020 Roland Garros champion faces Russian Daria Kasatkina in the last four on Thursday, with the winner to face either Coco Gauff or Martina Trevisan — who meet in the second semifinal — in Saturday’s showpiece match.

Polish star Swiatek has climbed from world No. 7 to the top of the rankings on the back of a remarkable unbeaten run which has seen her win five successive tournaments, including four WTA 1,000 titles.

“I kind of felt like the sky’s the limit for me, so I feel more free right now, I feel like I’ve proven myself,” said Swiatek, who turned 21 on Tuesday.

“A lot has changed in my mind and for sure I also realize that I can actually be number one and really cope with it properly. So that’s pretty cool.”

Swiatek will be playing in her third Grand Slam semifinal, after also making that stage at this year’s Australian Open.

Kasatkina won her first clash with Swiatek on the Eastbourne grass last year, but has lost all three of their meetings in 2022 in straight sets, without winning more than five games in a match.

But those defeats all came on hard courts at the Australian Open and in Dubai and Doha.

“We played few times this year, but, okay, I lost those matches, but was a different story,” said Kasatkina. “It was a hard court, beginning of the year, I was not in the same shape as I am now.

“I cannot compare what we are going to have tomorrow and what we had in February, March when we were playing. It’s going to be completely different match...

“She’s good on hard court, she’s good on clay, so it doesn’t matter. But I think for me it’s better to face her on clay.”

Gauff has threatened to break into the highest echelons of the sport since her fairytale run to the Wimbledon last 16 as a 15-year-old three years ago.

Her victory over Sloane Stephens in the previous round was only her second Grand Slam quarterfinal, but now a maiden final is just one win away.

“You don’t want to let other people limit your dreams,” said the 18th seed.

“It’s important that you don’t put yourself into a box. So I always try to tell young kids that, to dream big, and you never know when your moment is going to happen.”

Gauff lost her only previous match against Italian Trevisan in the second round at Roland Garros in 2020.

But the American has made a habit of beating players at the second time of asking in her young career, including earlier this week against Stephens and when she beat Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Australian Open.

“I think it gives me confidence,” said Gauff. “Losing to Sloane at the (2021) US Open and (winning) here, and then losing to Naomi and I lost to Trevisan, so I’m hoping the trend keeps going.”

World number 59 Trevisan enjoyed a dream run to the quarter-finals as a qualifier two years ago and is on a 10-match winning streak after winning her maiden WTA title in Rabat last month.

The men’s semifinals take place Friday with 13-time champion Rafael Nadal, who knocked out world number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the last-eight, facing Alexander Zverev.

Marin Cilic, the 20th seeded 2014 US Open champion, plays Casper Ruud, the first Norwegian man ever to get to a Slam semifinal.

Cilic is only the fifth active men’s player after Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to make the semifinals at all four majors.


Algerian Muay Thai veteran Mehdi Zatout comes out of retirement to win boxing debut at ONE 166

Updated 55 min 48 sec ago
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Algerian Muay Thai veteran Mehdi Zatout comes out of retirement to win boxing debut at ONE 166

  • The 40-year-old overcame previously undefeated Saudi boxer Zuhayr Al-Qahtani in Qatar

Two years ago, former ISKA and WBC Muay Thai World Champion Mehdi Zatout stood inside the ONE Circle with his family as tears streamed down his face.

He had just been awarded a $50,000 bonus for scoring a knockout in what would be the last fight of his decorated Muay Thai career.

Fast-forward to ONE 166 in Qatar, where the 40-year-old was presented with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse – coming out of retirement to make his boxing debut against the undefeated Zuhayr Al-Qahtani.

Fittingly, Zatout made his walkout to “Gonna Fly Now,” the iconic theme song from Rocky (1976).

In a 147lb catchweight bout of 3x3 minute rounds, Zatout exuded confidence from the outset and used his superior reach.

The Algerian connected with a couple of right hands early in the first round.

Al-Qahtani attempted to get on the inside and go to the body using his jab. Zatout advanced with his hands down and was clipped with a right hook toward the end of the opening stanza, but he had landed cleaner shots overall.

The veteran, who trains out of the Venum Training Camp in Pattaya, dropped Al-Qahtani with a left hook in the second, but the knockdown was not scored due to Zatout’s use of dirty boxing in grabbing the back of the Saudi fighter’s head.

Al-Qahtani landed a right hook upstairs, and with the contest slipping away from him, he was under pressure to pick up the pace. He charged forward with his head ducked low and landed a jab on the inside but was getting countered, with Zatout showing slick movement.

“Diamond Heart” had been showboating throughout the contest. With his hands by his sides, he goaded his opponent, pointing at his chin, willing the Saudi to try and hit him in the third round.

“The Arabian Warrior” was moving in recklessly, and Zatout appeared to mock his wild punches, giving the crowd a big smile as he landed a pair of right hands before flexing his muscles. Zatout was clearly there to entertain and sailed toward the unanimous decision.

This was Al-Qahtani’s first fight since 2019, so ring rust may have been a factor as he endured his first professional loss and slipped to 9-1.

“It was a dream come true,” Zatout told Arab News. “I was thinking all my career that I would love to fight in boxing shoes with a jacket, Rocky music. Like a kid’s dream and it was realized today so it was amazing for me.”

In terms of how the fight went, he said: “I’m not especially happy about myself. I was looking for more domination. More striking. But the opponent was short, going too low and the clinch in boxing was not allowed. But it’s OK, it was a pleasure.”

Despite being 40, Zatout clearly enjoyed himself and hasn’t ruled out another go.

“I called it ‘The Last Dance’ but when you’re not happy about your performance … let’s see. I’m a busy man, but you never know!”

Earlier on the card, Yemen’s Osamah Almarwai was submitted by Cleber Sousa in their ONE Flyweight Submission Grappling match.

Both men went hunting for leg locks in the early stages but trouble came for the ATOS man when the Brazilian began relentlessly attacking Osa’s arm.

“Clandestino” had a couple of armbar attempts before transitioning to the back. From there, he went hunting for the rear-naked choke.

Both men were coming off losses to the champion, Mikey Musumeci, on their ONE debuts, and Sousa looked intent on returning to winning ways.

He continued to pressure and sought a kimura before unleashing another armbar attempt. Danger beckoned for the Saudi-born fighter as his opponent wrapped him up in an inverted triangle choke. The anguish showed on Almarwai’s face as Sousa finally secured the armbar after 5 minutes and 31 seconds.

The South American now has an impressive 54 submissions on his CV, while Osamah slides to 0-2 since arriving in ONE Championship.

In the main event, there was a slice of history for Anatoly Malykhin, who is the only MMA fighter to simultaneously hold three world title belts in a major organization.

The Russian finished Middleweight champion Reinier De Ridder in the second round with a grounded knee, having scored a first-round finish with punches in their first meeting in 2022.

“Sladkiy” was awarded a $50,000 bonus and now adds the Dutchman’s Middleweight belt to his Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight titles. He stands with the distinction of being both undefeated and a triple champ.


Eddie Howe responds to Newcastle United future talk as Julian Nagelsmann links surface

Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe reacts. (Reuters)
Updated 02 March 2024
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Eddie Howe responds to Newcastle United future talk as Julian Nagelsmann links surface

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has come out fighting after talk of his Newcastle United future in the media linked Germany head coach Julian Nagelsmann with the job.

Howe has come under pressure from a minority of Newcastle fans due to poor performances, an increasingly concerning defensive record and a slide down the Premier League table. The Magpies are currently 10th in the top-flight standings, with likely eight places set to result in European competition qualification for next season.

And that has seen speculation build, particularly in the European press. Reports from Germany suggest current Germany boss Nagelsmann would be interested in replacing Howe, if Newcastle decide a change is in order this summer. That is, at this stage, not thought to be the position of the Magpies’ hierarchy.

Howe said he had seen the Nagelsmann talk and it did not concern him, insisting his future will be defined by his own actions, not those of others.

“Genuinely it doesn’t affect me. I’m here. I’m sitting in the seat. My future will be defined by what I do, no one else,” he said when quizzed on the matter.

“It’s up to me to continually prove myself. I back myself and my ability. I know my qualities. I know what I bring to the job and I have ambitions for the team and the club and I can’t control what people write and what speculation there is in every sense. I don’t try to get involved in it.”

Howe was then asked whether he felt support from the club’s owners. Newcastle are 80 percent owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia; the other 20 percent is split between RB Sports & Media (roughly 14 percent) and Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi (around 6 percent).

The Newcastle boss said: “It’s difficult for me to speak for them, but I have felt a support and an understanding for the season that we have had, and things that have been thrown at us and things that have happened. That’s really important from my side that I do feel that support.

“I’m not going to try and put words in people’s mouths or anything like that, but I think they have seen from afar how difficult this season has been.”

Having won on the road in the cup, it is back to St. James’ Park and the challenge this weekend of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who edged ahead of Newcastle last weekend in the top-flight standings. Victory at the weekend would be Newcastle’s first win at home in all competitions since mid-December, a record which is the antithesis of their form in the 12 months previous to that, where they were near unbeatable on home turf.

Howe said: “We’re not at our fluent best but there is a lot of good. There is some frustration that we’re not quite ourselves, but I think that will come. I have no doubt, once we’re back to full strength, hopefully you’ll see the real Newcastle again.

“The last few games have been frustrating because possibly in the months gone by, they were games that we would have won or found a way to win. For whatever reason they’re games we didn’t win.

“Looking back on those games, it was also important we didn’t lose those games and to have shown the battling and fighting qualities to fight back from losing positions, which is great to see. I'd like to see us, of course, return to our best performances at home.

“I think the environment we've had to play in has been incredible; I have to thank the supporters for that. They haven’t seen us win for a while but they’re still backing us and supporting the players in the time that they’re playing. Hopefully that’ll make the difference.”

Meanwhile, Newcastle's reward for edging past Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the FA Cup is a last-eight tie at current holders Manchester City.

On hearing the draw, Howe joked: “I was driving at the time and I almost swerved off the road.

“It wasn’t the draw we wanted, that’s for sure. I don’t think any team wants to play Manchester City four times in a season but we’re looking forward to the game. I believe we can beat anybody when we’re at our best. We’ve had three really tight games against them this year.

“When you have time to analyze things and go through it like you do mentally, you realize that to win the FA Cup you’ll probably have to beat Manchester City at some stage in the competition. So that’s been moved forward from our (point of) view and I just think we have to look at it and give everything to try and win. It will be difficult but we can do it.”

 


Bayern held in Freiburg to give Leverkusen advantage in title race

Updated 02 March 2024
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Bayern held in Freiburg to give Leverkusen advantage in title race

  • Mathys Tel’s 35th-minute stunner had canceled out an impressive opener from Freiburg captain Christian Guenter
  • Bayern have now failed to win away from home in four matches dating back to January in both the league and Champions League

FREIBURG, Germany: Bayern Munich were held to a 2-2 draw at Freiburg on Friday, an 87th-minute equalizer from Lucas Hoeler giving leaders Bayer Leverkusen a chance to go 10 points clear.
Mathys Tel’s 35th-minute stunner had canceled out an impressive opener from Freiburg captain Christian Guenter, before Jamal Musiala’s spectacular solo effort looked to have snared the three points for Bayern.
Hoeler however had other ideas, chipping a volley through a crowded Bayern penalty area and past a helpless Manuel Neuer.
Bayern have now failed to win away from home in four matches dating back to January in both the league and Champions League.
Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen can go 10 points clear of the Bavarians with a win against lowly Cologne on Sunday.
Guenter blasted the hosts into the lead after 12 minutes, unleashing a spinning rocket from outside the box and into the bottom right of the goal.
The goal was the Freiburg captain’s first of the season and the club’s only strike from outside the box this campaign.
Not content to allow Guenter to dominate the highlights reel, Tel hit back with a dream goal of his own, curling in a long-range effort on his second league start this season.
With 15 minutes remaining and Bayern dominating possession but failing to carve out clear chances, Musiala dribbled past at least three Freiburg defenders and blasted a low shot into the right corner.
Despite holding the lead Bayern grew passive, dropping deep to defend their goal and hold onto their slender lead.
With just three minutes of regular time remaining, Hoeler held off several Bayern defenders and chipped a volley over Neuer and into the goal, sending the home side into raptures.
The draw spoilt the first day at work for Bayern sporting director Max Eberl, who said during his unveiling this week the side would still push Leverkusen for the title.
The point sees Freiburg finish the night in ninth place in a crowded Bundesliga table, with only five points separating seventh and 15th places.


Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Updated 01 March 2024
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Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

  • Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid made sure 18-time champions now nine points clear of Riyadh rivals in second

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.

Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.

It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.

Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.

But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.

The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world. 

A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.

But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.

Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.

Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.

Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.

As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.

Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.

There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.

For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.


Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner

Updated 01 March 2024
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Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner

  • Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 29.179 seconds to beat Leclerc by 0.228 seconds in the final seconds of the session
  • “It was a lot of fun,” said Verstappen

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Max Verstappen delivered some much-needed relief for his Red Bull team on Friday when he resisted Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to claim pole position for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The defending three-time world champion picked up where he left off last year by topping the times in a closely-contested qualifying session at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir.
His success, which he admitted was “a little bit unexpected” arrived after another day of speculation and pressure for team boss Christian Horner, following the anonymous leaking of a cache of alleged private messages and photographs between him and a female member of the team.
This came 24 hours after an internal investigation led by an independent London lawyer had resulted in Horner being cleared of all claims of inappropriate behavior.
Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 29.179 seconds to beat Leclerc by 0.228 seconds in the final seconds of the session, securing his third Bahrain pole and the 33rd of his career.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Verstappen.
“The track had a lot of grip, but with the wind over the last few days, it’s been quite tricky to get a whole lap together and it was the same in qualifying.
“In Q1 and Q2 you go a bit faster, with the track ramping up, but to really get everything out of it in Q3 was a little bit difficult. So I’m very happy to be on pole.”
He added: “To be honest, it was a little bit unexpected, but I think the car came to us and I felt happier with the whole car.”
He forecast a close race on Saturday.
“We look good for the race and that’s the most important, but we will see tomorrow. I’m confident we can have a strong race.”
Ferrari’s Leclerc missed pole by only two-tenths of a second as he finished second ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell, Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso qualified sixth for Aston Martin, ahead of the McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes and Nico Hulkenberg 10th for Haas.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” admitted Leclerc.
“But we had a good qualifying and this offers us a good start to the year.”
Russell praised Mercedes for producing a car that he could build on. “P3 is a good place to start,” he said.
Qualifying got under way with Horner, who has always categorically denied any wrongdoing, under renewed pressure despite being cleared in Red Bull’s investigation led by a London lawyer.
Horner, who turned up at the track on Thursday to oversee the start of the new season, said: “I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations.”
Verstappen ensured events on the track went more smoothly and he will be favorite to emulate last year’s result when he won the first of 19 races as he swept to his third title.
The session began in cool conditions as temperatures fell under the floodlights at Sakhir’s International Circuit where Bahrain’s maiden race took place 20 years ago.
The air temperature was 18, the track 21.
The first qualifying segment ended with Sainz on top as the Alpines made an early exit along with both Saubers and Williams’ Logan Sargeant.
After topping Thursday’s opening practice, Hamilton squeezed through in 15th place.
Leclerc topped the times on the second runs of Q2 and Sainz was third, sandwiching Verstappen in second, while Hamilton was fourth with a late lap.
In the final seconds of the top 10 shoot-out Verstappen improved to 1:29.179, enough to resist Leclerc by 0.228 seconds to launch his 2024 season in ominous fashion.
Exceptionally the Bahrain race and next weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are being staged on Saturdays to accommodate the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.